The purpose of a town hall meeting is for members of the public to ask questions and get answers from elected officials or candidates. But town halls also serve as a political symbol; those who hold them can say they’re accessible to their constituents. That's what was on Frank Guinta’s mind as he outlined a new “We the People” constituent contact system at his town hall meeting Saturday in Alton.
“In New Hampshire, I’ve always felt that you’ve to be as accessible as possible," Guinta told the roughly two dozen people in attendance. "You’ve got to be closest to the people, whether I was a state legislator, city alderman, mayor or representative in Washington.”
The 1st District Republican hasn’t been at his closest to the public in recent months. He’s only made a few public appearances in the two months since the Federal Election Commission concluded he had taken $355,000 in illegal donations from his parents.
Now, with the town hall meeting and other weekend events, Guinta is taking some steps back into the public sphere. He’s highlighted legislation to curb opioid abuse and to protect the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
When Guinta’s been directly questioned about the FEC report, he’s stayed on message, telling WMUR's Josh McElveen in a recent interview, "I am moving on and making sure that I focus on the things that people elected me to do."
The four questions that came up at the town hall meeting in Alton were about those kinds of issues – veterans' concerns, immigration, Common Core. Ann Chiampa of Londonderry says she came to hear about drug policy, and says she was interested in Guinta’s legislation to expand drug courts.
“We’re going to spending money on drug courts and everything else, but why can’t we do more to attack the source of the drugs?" she asked after the meeting. “I just wanted to come in as a citizen and ask questions.”
But not everyone who’s looking to ask Guinta questions these days is focusing on his drug court policy. He still faces calls to resign from top New Hampshire Republicans like US Senator Kelly Ayotte. Guinta’s campaign has insisted he will run again in 2016, but Dean Spiliotes of Southern New Hampshire University says as the campaign draws nearer, it will be harder to avoid questions about the illegal money.
"He is apparently quietly trying to raise money again. I think that's going to be a big challenge for him," Spiliotes says. "I think the biggest hurdle for him is going to be a Republican primary. If you get into a very tight Republican primary, and your key political figures in your own party are urging someone else to be on the ballot, that becomes tricky.
"The likelihood that he'll get through a primary without this becoming an issue, I think, is pretty slim."
Democrats are looking to keep Guinta’s financial issues in front of the public as well. Several Democrats stood outside the town hall meeting waving signs that made reference to the campaign money. And inside, as the congressman concluded his remarks, a Democratic congressional hopeful named Shawn O’Connor rose to speak…
"I have here a petition signed by 4,000 people who have asked you to resign," O'Connor said. "I'd like to give it to you, Congressman Guinta."
By that point, Guinta was already on his way out of the building and on to another event in Rochester, with the question about his finances literally behind him - at least for now.